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The (Not So) Hidden Costs of Christmas

Christmastime is expensive.

Image by Michael from Flickr

This isn’t news to anyone, though, as the average American spent roughly $700 on gifts in 2019. That’s a bit more than I, personally, set aside for Santa’s bounty, but statistics don’t really cater to the individual. Go figure? There is one element to the Holiday Season, however, that eats up a good chunk of our gift budgets without most people ever realizing it. In fact, this particular holiday expense can cost American households an extra $60 or more, depending on where they live. What exactly is this hidden expense, then? 

Energy. Power. Electricity. The lifeblood of our modern lives. Every year around the end of November, millions upon millions of American households (and businesses, and even whole city blocks…) begin to erect forests in their living rooms, darning their homes and properties with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of twinkling lights, inflatable lawn decorations, and all things holly-jolly. And it is beautiful, don’t get me wrong! Who doesn’t enjoy seeing a mini Christmas village pop up in their neighborhood? The sights, the sounds, the general mood of the holiday season is something that most folks look forward to every year. With that euphoria, though, comes a bit of overzealousness, and people tend to put on blinders with regard to exactly how much energy they are actually using to recreate the North Pole on their front lawns. Energy consumption is cumulative, as well, and as the number of Christmas lights in use increases, so does the cost to run them. 

Between Black Friday and New Years Day, Americans consume exponentially more energy than some countries do in an entire year. A 2008 study by the Department of Energy showed that 6.63 billion kilowatt hours (kwh) of energy is consumed in America by decorative holiday lights, alone! That is a whole lotta power used, and yet this 30-45 day period only accounts for about 0.2% of the total annual energy consumption in the US, which topped out at 3.9 trillion kwh at the end of 2018. For scale, the entirety of El Salvador uses around 5.35 billion kwh and Tanzania uses 4.81 billion kwh of energy in an entire year! It is quite clear that one of our favorite American holiday traditions is extremely demanding on our limited and very valuable resources. 

Image by Paul VanDerWerf from Flickr

Excessive energy consumption is not the only quantitative ecological impact on our planet that stems from the holiday season, though. NASA has reported that the glow from the United States is noticeably brighter from space during this time period as well. The influx of holiday lighting has cities from coast to coast appearing anywhere from 20-50% brighter during December in comparison to the rest of the year. A visually measurable repercussion of the growing light pollution issue that has become so prevalent in recent decades. To expand on this subject covered previously in BeGood News, this phenomenon of light pollution very clearly rises to even greater levels during the holiday season, both to the detriment of our health as a species and to the health of our planet – even if the elevated significance at this time of year is felt only briefly, the effects are compounded each year.  

[Related: Light Pollution: The Dark Side of Lighting]

However, in addition to the environmental consequences that increased energy utilization have on our planet throughout the month of December, our habitual overuse of holiday lighting has an increased economic impact, as well. Escalation of energy consumption equally, and obviously, escalates energy costs, resulting in people spending much more on the holidays than they ever anticipated – most without even recognizing it. For example, a home using just 4 strings of 25 traditional incandescent C9 lights (roughly 96 feet worth) can cost an additional $60.48 on their power bill at the end of the season. These calculations are based on the cost of energy detailed in the Price of Light chart included in this article (psst —>). Multiply this figure by the millions of homes and businesses that participate in this holiday tradition and you can see just how much money is wasted on superfluous energy use during this period every year.  

Now, I’m not here to preach to you about giving up a beloved holiday tradition. Not even a little. I am merely pointing out how much harm we are doing to ourselves and to the planet if we continue practicing this tradition as if we did not have the available technology to make a difference in reducing that harm. There is one obvious and super simple solution, however, that can massively influence this spiraling problem: switch to LED versions of your favorite holiday lights! 

Many, many people have taken advantage of LED technology year round – and mother nature thanks you for your contribution – but for some reason, switching to LED Christmas lights is a trend that, while growing, has not fully caught on. This could be due, in part, to the higher price tag but if you take into consideration how much extra you are spending on your power bill at the end of the season, these LEDs practically pay for themselves in no time flat.  

Image by Paul VanDerWerf from Flickr

The Department of Energy reported that, even though the holiday season is just a few weeks of the year, the conversion of holiday lights from incandescent to LED sources would generate considerable energy savings. The potential annual energy savings of a complete market shift to LED holiday lights is approximately 64.4 TBtu of primary energy consumption, equivalent to the output of ninety percent of one large (1000 MW) electric power plant or the annual electricity consumption of almost five hundred thousand households. Along with significant energy savings, the adoption of LED sources would be accompanied by other benefits, including a longer operating lifetime as well as a safer and more durable product.

One other fabulously low-cost solution to this burgeoning issue, and interestingly enough it is one that has been around for a very long time, is to use a timer for all your lighting displays. Hear me out – no one, and I mean no one, needs a full Christmas carnival glaring into their windows all night long. No one is driving around the neighborhood with hot cocoa and their kids in tow to see your Clark Griswold-inspired holiday exhibit after 11 pm. It just isn’t a thing, at least not where I’m from. Not only do timers make your life so much more convenient (hello, no more running outside in subzero temps and 3 feet of snow to unplug the lights on your porch), they can reduce your energy spend without any extra effort. Combine the use of timers with switching to LED, and you have achieved holiday greatness with ease. So, if you insist on lighting every square inch of your property to ensure Santa doesn’t forget to stop, use a simple timer to shut down the party once you go to bed. Your neighbors, your wallet, and the nocturnal creatures that really need the darkness in order to survive will thank you. 

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and as always, Be Good.

Image by Kirt Edblom from Flickr